Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (29 January 2017) by the Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (29 January 2017) by the Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean

How do we really treat each other? The Dean consider human rights in a fast-changing world.


Last weekend in Washington was a tumultuous and divided one: a large (disputed size) crowd for the new president’s inauguration on Friday 20th January, followed the next day by a possibly larger crowd standing up for the rights of women and black and LGBT people, other minorities and those on the margins of society, a crowd which also marched in other cities around the world. Two crowds, with two different views of the future. 
 
And now we see the next stage in the conflicts coming over human rights, as people from certain countries are denied entry by the government of the United States: as Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra the joint Chair of the Christian-Muslim Forum in this country has said, Muslims are being treated as subhuman.
 
Underlying the divisions expressed last weekend, and the discriminations against nationalities and sexualities in the news in Britain this weekend, is the question of who defines human rights.
 
For some President Trump supporters, human rights are a plot by other people not like them to curtail their right to choose how to live, their right to keep control over their money and their women and keep the government and poverty out of their lives, a plot to deny their choice to give rights to unborn children rather than to the women forced to bear them. 
 
On the other hand, for those who marched a week ago, human rights are about the right to be yourself, to be valued as a human being, about everyone being of equal worth.
 
Yet for those who uphold them and for those who oppose them, human rights are – what they believe they are. For both sides, defining our rights is a question of power: who exercises power over others, and do we have power over our own lives, to be who and what we want to be? 
 
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was composed in 1948 in response to a world wrecked by tyranny and war. Its 30 articles set out the basic rights that come from seeing everyone as of equal worth, and it’s been signed up to by nearly all the nations of the world.
 
Go on the internet and read it however, and you’ll see that it’s still an aspiration not a reality: that in nearly 70 years some progress has been made, and yet the ravages of sexism, racism, ethnic conflict, slavery, injustice and a lack of acceptance of the equal humanity of others are still endemic in human affairs. What WS Gilbert and Oliver Hardy used to say also keeps on applying to human affairs: ‘here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!’
 
The Declaration of Human Rights is an attempt to sort the mess by stating the best for all people, whatever their social and religious and cultural background: but of course it depends on who you count as ‘all’, who you see as being truly human. 
 
The American Constitution proudly proclaims that all men are born equal, yet the founding fathers of the United States and their sons have denied equal humanity to native peoples, women and black people, and now to Mexicans and Muslims And before we boast, we should remember that our record in this country has been little better. 
 
And further back in time, in the ancient Christian world, what we might regard as human rights were restricted to a few men, to the strong and the wise, and to those who were just lucky. 
 
St Paul, who wrote the words of our first reading, was one of the lucky few who had rights in his world, as a Roman citizen; yet writing to a mixed and divided Christian community in Corinth he doesn’t make anything of his own rights, but looks to God in Jesus Christ to discover what it is to be truly human. 
 
Imagine if Paul had been in Washington last weekend saying to each of the two crowds these words we’ve just heard read; where would you put yourself in relation to them?
 
Consider yourselves, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many of you were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
 
In the church in Corinth, Christians weren’t treating each other as equal human beings before God, because men with wealth and power, and those who were slaves and women, didn’t mix together. 
 
Paul doesn’t tell them that they have equal rights – because they don’t. What Paul says is that all of us are equally dependent on God’s love given to us through the cross of Jesus Christ, dependent for our being on God’s self-sacrificial love. 
 
It’s because God loves us all equally, and calls us all to justice and repentance equally, that we are equally human. Ironically, belief in the supreme God as seen in Jesus Christ is the guarantee of our human rights, because God in Jesus takes on our humanity, and so each and all of us in our infinite variety are valued and valuable, and share the God-endorsed dignity of being a human being. 
 
It’s not being human in itself that makes us equal, as human beings have shown time and time again as we enslave and destroy each other, treating others as less than human. We are equal because we all stand equally in relationship to God.
 
There’s a film recently come out called ‘Loving’, which tells the story of a mixed-race marriage in postwar Virginia, and how the couple concerned helped to change the law in the period of segregation in the southern US. The film reminds us of how we were, and perhaps that we can boast to ourselves about how we’ve changed – but we’ve not changed that much.
 
Gay people and people of different faiths, different castes and different ethnic and social groups, are still being, raped, persecuted, murdered, for living and loving outside the boundaries of their communities. And it’s not just President Trump and politicians and nasty people out there who are to blame.
 
Not many of us can be President of the United States or lawmakers or people of noble birth or celebrity status, as Paul points out. But you and I have power over others every day, to make the lives of every person we meet better or worse, to treat them as equally human or as less human than ourselves. 
 
We can march to protest against the loss of human rights and dignities: we can protest, but what do we do to help those subject to hate crime, discrimin­ation and violence? The Church actually does quite a lot in these areas in different ways: how much do we know about it, and how do we help?
 
And what of you and I in our own lives day by day? How do we actually live towards others? 
 
Even as we confront or oppose the unkind views and injustices of others, do we treat even our opponents and those who hate us as the human beings beloved by God, that they, like us, truly are? Will we really treat all other people we talk about or meet through this next week, the President and the terrorist in the news, the local bus driver or the waiter in the café, as human beings like us with feelings and hopes and fears, deserving of love and respect as people, even as we confront their untrue or unjust thoughts and views?
 
As Paul reminds us, it’s not our rights that makes us human, but being loved by God. For God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world – so that no one might boast in the presence of God.